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Tropical Textures in Every Climate

by Nel Newman

What is it about warm, sunny climes and tropical fruit drinks that makes everyone feel happy? If it's not the beaches and surf that attract us to the tropics, it must be the big, bold, beautiful plants. When there is a breeze, they stir the air around you more than they fan your face. They look substantial, and truly can stand up to the hottest day. That's tropical texture and it can be yours in every garden setting when you grow the right plants.

Classic tropical texture plants share these common characteristics: large leaves, brightly colored, frequently fragrant, flowers, and fast growth. The leaves make the visual statement. They may be slick and shiny or hairy with thick, even leathery, surfaces. In mostly medium and dark green, they're often shaped like hearts or ovals. Tropicals are considered bold or coarse, almost landscape bullies, but think again. Their fast growth rate makes their impact almost immediate and their size and shape render them unforgettable.

Tropical plants may not be hardy where you live, but their stunning beauty makes them worth using as annuals or tender perennials in the garden. And all make great candidates for greenhouses and even heated sunrooms if you plan ahead to keep them over the winter. These plants demand a soil rich with organic matter and fertilizer in their water at least once a month in the summer. They will return your care with boisterous good growth, ideal for brightening outdoor living areas.

Try this list of widely available plants in courtyard beds, containers, sunken pots, and borders. Each expresses the qualities of classic tropical texture in its distinct way:

Allamanda and Mandevilla may sound strange, but these flowering vines will win your heart. Thick- petaled, big flowers in yellow and pink shades, respectively, cover sturdy vines all summer long. Use on trellises in patio pots in nearly full sun.

Relatives cannas and bananas tower above, and the eye follows. Cannas deliver round flowers in tiered clusters followed by interesting seed pods on upright plants 2'-6' tall. If leaf rollers present, fill the area around the plants with diatomaceous earth to control them. Bananas arch and then droop with grander height. Keep both in containers in the border to keep them in bounds.

Plantainlilies (Hosta spp.) develop tufted leaf clumps that look like thickly upholstered cushions. Stalks emerge with white, lilac, or blue flowers in shady summer gardens. Grow these as an accent near a shady entrance, or mass them under trees.

Butterfly ginger, hardiest of the species, thrives in rich soil and partial shade to bloom with fragrant flowers. Each five foot stem has leaves straight off to each side and flower clusters at its tip. Plant where the smell can reach you, but the height doesn't block your view.

Hibiscus (H.rosa-sinensis) can be grown in tubs for years with protection, or as shrubby annuals you can purchase new each year or propagate from cuttings in the fall. Shiny green leaves feature bold flower trumpets in red, yellow, orange, and pink.

Two bulbs deliver instant tropical effect and can be dug up for storage from year to year. Elephant ears (Taro, Xanthosoma, or Alocasia) look like their name sounds: gigantic, heart-shaped leaves with decorative ridges on long, arching stems. Believe their name and give these plenty of room. Caladiums are grown for their leaves, which come in stunning white, green, pink, and red combinations and thrive in warm weather. Use them as accents or to continue the tropical theme into shade areas. Remove their flowers as they appear to keep leaves coming. Withhold water to trigger dormancy; dig both bulbs after leaves die down. Store in dry peat moss in mesh sacks and do not allow to freeze.

You don't need pink flamingoes or tiki torches to achieve that tropical effect in your garden. They make fine accents, of course, but so do large rocks and logs, trellises made from bent wood, and fire pits fashioned from recycled metal. Windchimes with big tubes for deeply resonant tones and wind socks to catch every breath of air in motion add even more tropical flavor to your patio, deck, or garden room.

For contrasting tropical textures, grow these:

bamboo
palm
ferns
Cyperus
frangipani (Plumeria)
itrus trees

Save Seed for Big Stars

Rice paper plants, fatsia, and castor bean feature tropical texture in big star shaped leaves. All can be grown from seed you save each year.



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